In these nineteen years together, 'Iokepa and I have made a practice of crossing the Pacific Ocean twice annually. It's something we do alone as a couple. We fly to the continent to speak the words of the Native Hawaiian ancestors - and after some months, we fly back home. We visit with our family and friends in both places, but we don't cross the Pacific Ocean with them. Yet, there seems to have been an omnipresent someone who has shadowed our airplane's jet trail over these many years. Madi Kertonegoro is an accomplished visual artist from the Island of Bali.
Most likely, when a homeowner displays a large, pretentious portrait - oil on canvass in an ornate frame - as a centerpiece of their living room, a visitor or guest may rightly assume that the framed image depicts an ancestor. It is one way that we celebrate our lineage, our favorite grandparent or our most illustrious one. Such a portrait in an office building, of course, may well be the corporate founder.
'Iokepa and I, too, have positioned a huge, unsmiling portrait of a youngish man at the entrance of our first real home in nineteen house-less years. He stares directly and intensely at whomever crosses the threshold of our glass door. But this particular hand-carved, golden frame surrounds the singular image of a man that neither of us have ever, in fact, set eyes on: Madi from Bali, Indonesia.
Naturally, there's a story, and after a friend recently heard my account, he insisted that I write it here. Today is a quiet, undemanding Monday, and I think that I will.
More than twenty-two years ago, I was living in Portland, Oregon writing, teaching workshops, and single-parenting-with-a-vengeance my two teenage boys. For the third year in a row, I'd been invited to accompany a dear friend on her annual month-long, retreat to an Island in the Pacific, where she and her husband owned a few acres of bare ocean-front land. Each summer, she and her friends would throw together primitive bamboo huts and commune with nature and the good people of Bali. Each year, I'd refused the invitation. Life was too complicated: children, money, work - the usual.
But this year (now twenty-two in the past), the boys would be with their father for a good part of the summer; my work permitted a reprieve' and really, the only cost would be airfare. So, I agreed. It was a magical and satisfying month in every measurable way, and, in truth, worthy of some serious writing of its own. But not here, and not now.
If I recall correctly, it was just a few days shy of my return to Portland, and my friend wanted me to visit the studio of an artist - a painter - whose work she had collected over the years. To say that this artist's home and studio were simple would be to understate. Outside of any recognizable town or collective, it was a simple, meandering wooden structure. In any case, the artist (of some international repute) was in Europe. But his wife - a plain and welcoming woman - invited us to view the paintings that filled the walls of their home, and we did.
Clearly, I was not in the market for a piece of art; I was satisfying my host and my curiosity - nothing more. Most of these large canvases were abstract and somewhat metaphysical images - a few were portraiture. We prepared to leave, offered our thanks and farewell to the artist's wife, when she bent over and lifted a scrolled canvas laying of the floor.
She unrolled and pinned it, with pieces of wood to the floor, this enormous image: a handsome Polynesian man, featured from knee to head, sitting on the ground. His knee is bent and his arm rests on that knee with a lit cigarette in hand. He has dark, shoulder length wavy hair, a mustache that frames full lips, serious cheekbones, brown skin. He's wearing blue jeans and a black sport jacket. It was an intriguing combination: clearly and fully Polynesian - but with western garb and a cigarette. But beyond that intrigue there was the powerfully engaging face and all that it contained.
I was hooked, well before I was told that this was a self-portrait of the artist Madi Kertonegoro. His wife offered to frame it for me in any manner that I chose. Then she would disassemble the frame and re-roll the canvas so I could carry it with me back to Portland. My friend floated me the $300 loan (I was at the end of my travelers checks). Two days later, I saw the framed Madi. Three days later, I picked up the disassembled pieces for the flight home.
And so, Madi came to live on the wall of my glass house overlooking the city of Portland for several years.
Until I met 'Iokepa. Another vacation; another story; and a new life that required relinquishing everything for this walk of faith. I left that glass house on a hill for ten-years of tents. I packed very few boxes, took my kids in hand, and moved to Hawai'i. The next week, everything that the 3,000 square foot home on a hill contained and the house itself went up for sale: my mother's dishes and my serious library, my needlepoint dining chairs and my Delft pottery; my oriental rugs and my son's baseball cards; my bentwood rocker and my fine art. No exceptions.
That estate sale, days after the boys and I flew like birds to our new adventure, emptied the house of the precious and the mundane. Everything was gone. I was mailed a rather disappointingly small check to Kauai'i - and with it, the news that just one thing did not sell at any price - Madi. The estate broker took it upon herself to return Madi to me, and to the familiar comforts of Polynesia, where he sat wrapped in cardboard in a storage unit for many of those ten years - while we slept under canvas and on the ground. No place for an ornate oil painting inside our thirteen sequential tents.
Then my youngest son graduated high school and for the year before he began college, he returned to the town of his youth. Independent young man that he was and is still, he secured a job cooking in a neighborhood restaurant and found an amenable apartment. He spoke one desire: "I'd like to have real art in my apartment."
'Iokepa takes his step-father role very seriously. And though we had no predictable income on this walk of faith - a path guided only by the Hawaiian ancestors - 'Iokepa was determined that this son of ours would have his "real art." He went to the back entrance of Sears where he found a discarded, flattened refrigerator box. Then, on the grassy edge of the only Mall on Kaua'i, he cut that box to the shape of framed Madi - formed it and taped it - and spent every cent that we possessed at the time to ship that painting back to the United States - this time to Virginia. And there it hung facing my son's bed for the duration of his tenure there.
That tenure ended when he moved to New York City for college. He left behind just about everything he'd accumulated - furniture, books, music..and Madi. His father (living in a neighboring state) arrived and collected his belongings in a truck, hauled them to his home, distributed the usable furniture, and sacked away Madi (in the tattered refrigerator box) in a barn. There it sat (or, I had assumed that it had) for the past ten years.
Until this year. We were in Virginia, last winter, traveling and speaking the Hawaiian Grandmothers' words around the continent, as we do each winter. We knew that in May we'd be returning home - and for the first time in all our years together - we would have a home. A home - with actual walls and the security of perpetuity - that had been gifted to us and to the work of Return Voyage.
'Iokepa said: "Madi belongs in our new home. Madi needs to return to Polynesia."
I emailed my sons' father. "Do you still have that framed painting from our son's apartment? "
"I really don't know, but I'll look."
The painting - within a torn shroud of the original cardboard, and covered with ten-years' of dust - was found in a distant, leaky out-building. It was returned. Shortly before we left Virginia in May, we went to a proper moving and storage company, bought Madi a spanking new box and shipped him off to Kauai'i.
And so, Madi made his fourth voyage across the Pacific Ocean. He followed us home, and he hangs in front of our front door. Now there are two handsome Polynesian men in my home - Madi was perhaps the unknown harbinger of 'Iokepa - but it took a good while for the two of them to get properly acquainted.